Fat Tires Make Tracks Through Pandemic

Fat Bike lovers hit the course in the Borealis Fat Bike World Championships, held Jan. 15-17 at the Jackson Fork Ranch in Bondurant, Wyo., near Pinedale.
Fat Bike lovers hit the course in the Borealis Fat Bike World Championships, held Jan. 15-17 at the Jackson Fork Ranch in Bondurant, Wyo., near Pinedale.

Snow. Sand. Mud. These are not surfaces bicyclists usually traverse. Unless it’s on a fat bike.

On a sunny Saturday in mid-January with temperatures right at freezing, riders lined up for the 2021 Borealis Fat Bike World Championships, which rolled along a snow-covered trail with the Wyoming and Wind River mountain ranges looming in the distance.

With 3.8- to 5-inch tires and wide rims, fat bikes are made for this type of winter riding.

The pandemic caused a shift in the 2021 Borealis World Championships, which moved from its home in Crested Butte, Colo., to the 1,200-acre Jackson Fork Ranch near Pinedale, Wyo. Due to COVID-19, this year’s event hosted 75 riders, compared to the 175 competitors in the elite division alone last year.

“In a COVID year, we were pleased with the turnout,” said Steve Kaczmarek, CEO and founder of Borealis Fat Bikes.

“The venue change was great,” he said. “It was all new, so it really felt great to look forward to a new course, new people, new scenery, new beer sponsor, etc. Pinedale was more than welcoming to all racers and truly rolled out the carpet for us.”

One thing that hasn’t changed since the event started in 2015 is the fun, party atmosphere.

While most participants wear winter gear, others don tutus and cartoon costumes, and Superman capes. Participants relaxed in a one-of-a-kind ice bar—a structure built at Jackson Fork Ranch specifically for the event, made completely of ice and snow. Racers included regulars, newbies, and even high school students.

“It couldn’t have been better,” said Dave Ochs, one of the founders of the Borealis Worlds. “What an amazing location. Wyoming is glorious. The backdrop was stunning.”

Fat bikes are not new to Pinedale, which has single-track trails designated for the wider tires. The city is also home to The Drift, a winter race in the Wind River Mountains in which racers ski, bike, or run on a snow-covered groomed trail. This year’s event is set for March 12-14 and features a 13-mile half-marathon, 28-mile marathon, and 100-mile ultramarathon.

Fat Bike History

The popularity of mountain bikes in the mid-1980s led to the development of fat bikes. As riders explored deeper into the winter Alaskan back-country, arroyos of southern New Mexico and beaches of Mexico, they needed bikes adaptable for terrains like snow, sand, and mud.

In 1986, Jean Naud rode across the Sahara Desert from Algiers to Timbuktu on a prototype bike with low-pressure Michelin fat tires. Those evolved in Mexico with designs for allowing bike tours on soft sand beaches. Alaskan frame makers started using wider rims and tires on the Iditarod Trail.

In the mid-2000s, large bike companies created ‘fat tire’ versions for sale to the public. The phenomenon truly came of age about 10 years later as sales gained traction.

Sport Gains Traction

A hard, flat surface welcomed racers at the Borealis Fat Bike World Championships, held in January on the Jackson Fork Ranch near Pinedale, Wyo.
A hard, flat surface welcomed racers at the Borealis Fat Bike World Championships, held in January on the Jackson Fork Ranch near Pinedale, Wyo.

As the sport elevated to a competitive level with growth in competitors, trails, and races, it continues to grow even during a pandemic.

Fat bike sales for Borealis were up 50 percent in 2020, in part due to COVID, Kaczmarek said.

“People are staying at home looking for things to do,” he said.

As people sought exercise, social distancing, and transportation options, bicycle sales jumped by as much as 100 percent in some markets, according to the fitness tracking app, Strava. But, Kaczmarek said sales growth is also due to increased awareness of the versatility of a fat bike.

“All across America customers are learning you can ride a fat bike year round, which is proving to be a selling point as bikes get more and more expensive,” he said. “With a simple change of tires, you are ready for the snow, sand, mud, or whatever. It’s somewhat reflective of the old days when cars had summer and snow tires.”

Travis Counsell, executive director of the New England Mountain Bike Association (NEMBA), said they’ve seen momentum in the sport as well.

“Fat biking is certainly a growing segment of the sport,” said Counsell, crediting the hike to expanded equipment availability in recent years.

“Fat bikes used to be limited to those truly dedicated individuals who wanted to ride all year long, but now we’re seeing it become more popular across all types of riders,” Counsell added. “And, of course, fat biking provides a great way to ride during the winter months.”

While NEMBA is not holding any specific Fat Bike events this year, its chapters are affiliated with several events, mostly in Maine and New Hampshire, such as the Carrabassett Fat Tire Race set for Feb. 7 at the Sugarloaf Outdoor Center in Maine.

Counsell said he’s seeing more areas offering trail access to fat bikes, and grooming trails specifically for them.

“Some are even building winter-specific trails,” he said.